Volunteering for development
07 October 2004
The value of volunteering, in economic and social terms, has long been recognized and championed in the North. The importance of such volunteering in the South, in particular by people in their own communities, however, has only started to be more widely understood and recognized since the International Year of Volunteers (IYV) 2001. Newly appointed UNV Executive Coordinator Ad de Raad sat down with Caroline Stiebler * and Edward Mishaud to discuss the need to continue building the momentum behind this movement.
What is so special about volunteering for development?
Sustainable development requires people’s engagement. There is no question about that. People are development actors and not only recipients. Notions of inclusion, participation, ownership, solidarity and social cohesion leading to real capacity development and social capital come to mind.
Take the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) . It is clear that none of the MDGs will be attained if not also for the millions of ordinary people willing to involve themselves through voluntary action. Think, for example, of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in which 10 million people volunteered, mostly in their own local communities, to support the immunization of 550 million children. The actual contribution of the volunteers, in economic terms, has been estimated at more than US$10 billion. That amount is far beyond the reach of governments or international and national organizations. Equally important, though, is that capacity was developed in the process. In return for their time, local volunteers received health training and became entry points for future development efforts in their communities.
Such volunteering for development requires a united effort. It cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be recognized, facilitated, networked and promoted. Supporting and identifying ways to maximize the contribution of volunteerism to development, in close collaboration with all its development partners, is central to UNV’s mission.
What is the main difference between volunteering in the North and in the South and where are the links?
I think the biggest difference is perception. In Europe, for instance, the importance of volunteering is very well acknowledged. Even as we speak, public announcements are played on the television or over the radio recognizing the contributions volunteers make to society and encouraging more people to get involved. The underlying realization and rationale are clear: if tomorrow people stopped doing voluntary work, important parts of society would come to a grinding halt. That is why events such as the Eurofestation – with its focus on volunteering within Europe – are so important.
As the UN programme with the mandate to promote volunteerism for development and to mobilize volunteers, we, in UNV, strategically use opportunities like Eurofestation to highlight these links and to address the misperception held by many people that volunteerism for development is all about young, inexperienced people from the North going to the South to do good. Indeed, if you look at the UNV programme itself, 70 percent of UN Volunteers are from the South, with an average age of 39 and some five to 10 years of relevant professional experience.
But there is much more to it. If volunteering is recognized as an important part of society in the North, then the same applies to societies in the South. We need to highlight that a culture of volunteering, of helping one another, exists in the South, and that too needs to be recognized and equally cultivated and encouraged. Local volunteers, together with volunteers from abroad to complement their work, constitute a powerful resource. Take, for example, the volunteer exchange that unfolded last year in the aftermath of the floods in Sri Lanka. Some 200 Indian UN Volunteers, who were trained in disaster mitigation measures following natural disasters in India itself, were immediately deployed to Sri Lanka to lend a helping hand.
What are the main challenges to further expanding volunteering for development as a movement?
As I mentioned, most developed countries recognize the critical role of volunteer action in their own societies and extend direct support accordingly. But, paradoxically, it is still a challenge to gain acceptance by some of those countries of the importance of their supporting volunteerism and volunteer action in developing countries and factoring this into their aid programmes. We have to renew our efforts in convincing governments that there is a massive potential out there that, if properly resourced, can be harnessed and channeled towards making a significant contribution to achieving each one of the MDGs. Thus, effective advocacy at local, national and international levels is critical.
We have to continue fostering a favourable, enabling environment for volunteerism. We also have to look at volunteerism as something that is measurable. It has been said before that if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. That's why UNV works with institutions like Johns Hopkins University to incorporate volunteer contributions into the system of national accounts. This should help to get the attention of policy makers in the economic and financial spheres and permit more strategic approaches to mobilizing volunteers.
Another challenge, and also a great opportunity, is diversifying the volunteer base. We must further extend our reach with youth, retired persons, the private sector and its employees, and Online Volunteers. We also have to include those who fled their country, often during times of strife, and would like to return to help rebuild. By targeting these specific groups, we can add different ideas and new skills to the equation.
There are many motivated individuals out there as well as organizations. How can they be kept on board?
By making sure that people are able to associate themselves with a global volunteer movement. I would like the volunteer who supports Aids patients in Europe to feel an association with the local volunteer involved in HIV related work in an African village. Both are driven by the same motivation.
Take the WorldVolunteerWeb. The tens of thousands organizations and individuals who visit the site each month to access volunteer resources prove that there are people out there who want to gain information and exchange ideas. So, we have to nurture and build on these networks.
Events like International Volunteer Day (IVD) also have huge potential in demonstrating to volunteers globally that this day is for them – a celebration of their contributions to society. Campaigns, like the MDGs, provide an excellent framework for people to get involved in volunteering for development. By highlighting the importance of their engagement and recognizing their participation, it is possible to not only keep people on board but to attract more.
We also have to strengthen existing alliances and form new ones so that the full weight of the volunteer movement’s collective knowledge, experience and networks can be brought to bear on the major challenges of our times. That is why I am excited about our recent agreement with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, which represents some 95 million volunteers worldwide.
The potential of Online Volunteering is enormous. It is a perfect channel for people who want to volunteer and share their skills, but can't take time off work, be away from their families or other commitments. We have to remember that not everyone can, or has to be engaged in on-site assignments, for instance as UN Volunteers. And when people get in touch with us through networks like the WorldVolunteerWeb, we also refer them to volunteer involving organizations in their own communities and thus strengthen local volunteering, particularly in the South.
Are there any resources not yet fully utilized when we talk of volunteering for development?
I cannot stress enough the importance of capturing what is happening locally in terms of volunteer initiatives. Take Bolivia, where, as part of UNDP and UNV’s Youth with People Participation project, 1,200 university graduates will serve as volunteers in the course of the next three years by working with local municipalities and communities throughout the country to fight poverty. In addition to making their time and skills available to poverty eradication efforts, this initiative will also help young people to better understand the nature of development challenges in their own country.
We also have to continue getting our message across in different languages. I like the example of UN Volunteers in Peru who worked with local volunteers to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into indigenous languages. Through these efforts, the indigenous people now have a better understanding of their rights.
What are the next steps to tap into these resources?
We, as an organization and with our partners, have to continue enhancing the recognition, facilitation, networking and promotion of volunteerism for development. We must keep on challenging ourselves and encouraging others to measure our performance to ensure accountability and credibility. As for the 5,600 plus UN Volunteers who represent a unique form of international solidarity and engagement, we want each and every one of them to be the best advocates of volunteerism and to associate themselves with what UNV stands for. Indeed, they are our key resource.
*Caroline Stiebler and Edward Mishaud are members of UNV’s Communications Unit.
¡The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of time-bound development targets to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women. They were agreed to by world leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000.
¡¡Eurofestation is a major event on volunteerism and corporate social development, especially within the European Union, hosted by the Netherlands in November 2004.
¡¡¡Responding to demand from volunteer groups around the world to take forward gains made during the International Year of Volunteers 2001, UNV launched the WorldVolunteerWeb, a global volunteering portal that serves as a knowledge resource base for campaigning, advocacy, information dissemination and networking.
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